WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court, in the most far-reaching school prayer decision in nearly a decade, ruled Monday that public school districts cannot let students lead stadium crowds in prayer before high school football games.
The 6-3 decision in a Texas case said such prayers violate the constitutionally required separation of government and religion.
''School sponsorship of a religious message is impermissible because it sends the ancillary message to members of the audience who are nonadherents that they are outsiders, not full members of the political community, and an accompanying message to adherents that they are insiders, favored members of the political community,'' Justice John Paul Stevens wrote for the court.
''The delivery of such a message -- over the school's public address system by a speaker representing the student body, under the supervision of school faculty and pursuant to a school policy that explicitly and implicitly encourages public prayer -- is not properly characterized as private speech,'' he said.
The decision -- the most sweeping on this issue since the court prohibited clergy-led prayers at public school graduation ceremonies in 1992 -- could carry enormous significance beyond football games or other high school sports events.
As the latest word on a politically volatile issue that has bedeviled the nation's highest court for 40 years, the ruling offered a ringing reaffirmation of a landmark 1962 decision that outlawed organized, officially sponsored prayer in public schools.
When the Texas case was argued in March, an ABC News poll said two-thirds of Americans thought students should be permitted to lead such prayers.
And in Texas' Republican primary election last March, 94 percent of voters approved a nonbinding resolution backing student-initiated prayer at school sporting events. Texas Gov. George W. Bush, the presumed Republican presidential nominee, filed a brief urging the Supreme Court to uphold such student-led prayer.
Stevens said the court recognizes ''the important role that public worship plays in many communities, as well as the sincere desire to include public prayer as a part of various occasions so as to mark those occasions' significance.''
But he added: ''Such religious activity in public schools, as elsewhere, must comport with the First Amendment.''
The amendment prohibits an ''establishment of religion.''
''The Supreme Court made the right call,'' said the Rev. Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. ''School-sponsored football prayer deserved to be sacked.''
But a disappointed Jay Sekulow, chief counsel of the American Center for Law and Justice, an advocacy group founded by television preacher Pat Robertson, said the ruling ''will interject additional confusion into the area of protected religious expression in the schools.''
Joining Stevens were Justices Sandra Day O'Connor, Anthony M. Kennedy, David H. Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen G. Breyer.
Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas dissented in a vigorous opinion by Rehnquist.
''Even more disturbing than its holding is the tone of the court's opinion: It bristles with hostility to all things religious in public life,'' Rehnquist said.
Four high school students and their parents sued the Santa Fe Independent School District in Galveston County, Texas, in 1995 over its policy of letting students elect a ''chaplain'' to lead ''prayers'' at graduation ceremonies and home football games.
Two families -- one Catholic and one Mormon -- challenged the policy. Their identities were sealed by the courts.
After their lawsuit was filed, the policy was changed to let student-elected representatives -- no longer called chaplains -- give a ''message or invocation.'' Speakers are free to choose what they say so long as it promotes good sportsmanship.
A federal appeals court ruled last year that school officials must tell students to keep their graduation-ceremony comments and prayers ''nonsectarian and non-proselytizing'' but also ruled that student-led prayers at high school football games are always out of bounds.
School officials appealed both parts of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals' ruling, but the Supreme Court agreed only to focus on the football games, passing up the graduation-ceremony dispute.
Prayers over the football stadium's public address system were heard at all of Santa Fe High School's home football games last fall. Right after the 5th Circuit court's ruling, a group of Christian students led by senior band member Marian Ward obtained a judge's order allowing that invocations be continued.
Ward, who led the prayers at those games, attended the Supreme Court's argument session in the Santa Fe case in March.
The justices' last major ruling on school prayer was announced in 1992, and barred clergy-led prayers -- invocations and benedictions -- at public school graduation ceremonies. ''The Constitution forbids the state to exact religious conformity from a student as the price for attending her own high school graduation,'' the court said then.
The ruling was viewed as a strong reaffirmation of the court's 1962 landmark decision banning organized school prayer.
But in 1993, the justices refused to review a 5th Circuit court ruling in another Texas case that allowed student-led prayers at graduation ceremonies.
That ruling still is binding law in Louisiana and Mississippi as well. But it conflicts with another federal appeals court's decision barring student-led graduation prayers in nine Western states. The justices also refused to review that decision.
In the Texas case, the court did not discuss prayers at graduation ceremonies. But the rationale of Stevens' opinion appeared capable of being applied to such ceremonies.
The case is Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe, 99-62.
On the Net: For the decision: http://supct.law.cornell.edu/supct/ Click on ''this month's decisions'' or http://www.supremecourtus.gov
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